The maker movement is expanding there, but in numbers of fablabs, Argentina is still lagging behind in Latin America. Because of corruption and protectionism, according to José García Huidobro, from Fab Lab Buenos Aires. FAB13, fablab conference in August in Chili, could be a game-changer. Interview.
At the very beginning of the year Makery visited one of the Argentinian pioneers of the maker movement, El Reactor, born in 2010. Its founder José García Huidobro is also one of the architects of the construction of the South American maker network. An opportunity for a long interview a posteriori (during our visit Huidobro was in Uruguay). In the crosshairs: the MIT fablab annual conference, FAB13, that will be held from July 31 to August 6 in Chili.
As the founder of Reactor and the Fab Lab Buenos Aires, can you tell us the story of these structures and the emergence of the maker movement in Argentina?
The Fab Lab Buenos Aires is an association that promotes the democratization and the use of tools for the maker community in Buenos Aires and Argentina. El Reactor is a commercial venture that works with artists and designers using these tools and seeking to innovate in the fields of robotics and visual arts. Both projects coexist, and most of the time (not to say always), funds generated by El Reactor allow the funding of the Fab Lab Buenos Aires, with events such as the Mini Maker Faire organized last year at C3, the Centro cultural de la Ciencia that will be held this year in a place still to be defined.
Even though I am the founder of Reactor, with a group of associates, designers and artists, the Fab Lab Buenos Aires mostly exists thanks to the maker community and the people who use it through its workshops, its machines and all the technology and social innovation projects that fill it with life. The true founders are those with whom we work with.
After Reactor enabled the creation of Fab Lab Buenos Aires, the very first fablab in Argentina, and its minifablab in Pacheco de Melo street, a place turned towards the public and the makers from the Recoleta district, we worked with others to set up the CMDLab (the first digital fabrication laboratory in Buenos Aires of the CMD, Centro Metropolitano de Diseño, the design urban center, editor’s note).
Without truly being a fablab, it’s a very political project that allowed us to create another makerspace in Buenos Aires of which I was the head and manager. I dealt with purchasing machines, the layout, the membership system, the choices in terms of technologies to implement and the fact that it could be accessible to people with moderate incomes.
I decided to leave in 2015: the project was continuously lead astray by its own members, institutional and others, like Cafydma (association of furniture manufacturers, editor’s note) that overcharged for instance the purchase costs of machines. Public money was used to finance a project that we overcharged and of which, in the end, neither the equipment, nor the teachings completely benefited the public.
“In Argentina, the maker and fablab culture is not compatible with politics, where corruption is part of “normal” mechanisms, where numerous resources “get lost” in the different transmission chains of grant programs. One can’t close one’s eyes.”
José García Huidobro
Today, we have relations with the CMDLab. Its staff is composed of friends, but we would like its operating mode to be more transparent; we would like to see it invest itself more in the maker community and its Maker Faires.
Here, in Argentina, these embezzlements are so deep-rooted in our society that they are an operating challenge for a whole new generation of citizen laboratories supported by public authorities. Fab Lab Buenos Aires is an independent NGO, but we can’t not talk with the institutions. We accept help only if things are done in a transparent manner. For example, a week ago, the United States embassy in Argentina confirmed that we were nominated for the Small Grants program (a support program from the United States for community and local socio-economical initiatives, editor’s note), essential support to organize the next Maker Faire. We are also holding talks with the Argentinian Production ministry so that we get support for our project using our 3D printing technologies for the design of structures and houses with local materials.
Other fablabs are starting to structure themselves in the rest of Argentina, in towns like Bariloche, Córdoba, Mar del Plata or La Plata. Can we talk about a network, common projects?
The number of fablabs is in full expansion in Argentina. Makers’ emails wishing to open one come to us every month. Unfortunately, there is still no leading network fablab to provide the courses of the Fab Foundation. There are also a lot of labs that aren’t fablabs but are really interesting.
We work to ensure that a true formal network, favorable to real projects, can exist. At a rough guess, there must be a bit more than twenty labs in Argentina that give access to digital fabrication tools, more than ten of which are in the city of Buenos Aires and its surrounding area. New labs are announced like in Jujuy. Others are closing, like the Crea Fablab in Cordoba. Many are not identified as such, like the Minga Lab of the Lanus University, the Tamaco, in the south of Buenos Aires, a project in which I took part as soon as 2004, and the CMBLab. But if we compare ourselves to Brazil where there are more than 40 identified fablabs, we still have work to do!
Are there specific problems for the development of a true fablab culture in Argentina?
The first difficulty for Argentinian fablabs is to acquire digital machines abroad. We have emerged from several years of protectionism, during which one had to pay a lot of taxes to purchase a laser cutter for example, not forgetting the procurement of a special permit – a situation that does not exist in Chili for example. This impossibility to import still exists today with the new government even though there are favorable signs for greater flexibility. This explains that purchase prices remain high. This difficulty also explains why the issue of an “open” digital fabrication is so interesting in Argentina. There are numerous projects lead by makers who need to make their own machines. Isn’t this the best way to create fablabs and a true maker culture? I think so.
With a good organization, Argentina can become a leading country of the movement and new forms of entrepreneurship on a continental scale – even if it is not clearly the case today and that we are lagging behind Peru, Brazil and Chili. There is a great interest in the country for the digital and participative community. The stage is therefore set, but it needs good structuring and support from the international community since it is impossible to count on local support without it becoming tedious and counter-productive concerning the original principal of technology democratization.
FAB13, the international conference of MIT designated fablabs, will take place in August in Santiago, Chili… How do you see it?
FAB13 will be organized in Chili by the Fablab Santiago and it is of course a tremendous spotlight on projects in the region and an opportunity for many makers here to attend this kind of innovative international conventions, where technological know-how and practices are shared.
Many open laboratories of the country and Buenos Aires will take part. We will be there in particular to present our project of construction with local materials and our 3D printing methods. We are developing this project in the Buenos Aires industrial park, in collaboration with the province of Mendoza, very close to Santiago.
At the same time, on August 11, we will organize in Buenos Aires the second edition of our Mini Maker Faire. We also want to attract many regional makers and international experts who can travel from Santiago. I imagine a perfect interaction between the two cities and its fablab communities to benefit from this unique occasion to lay the foundations of leading network laboratories, as it was the case for FAB12 in Shenzen.
In Latin America, where financial means are excessively limited, where we have all these problems of institutional organization and little support in education, it is fundamental to prepare this generation of labs likely to create new ones, this generation of machines capable of making new ones, in an intelligent and rational manner. This is why I hope FAB13 will be linked to the topic of the ecological management of resources.
Latin America has many natural resources that are rarer and rarer on a worldwide scale. We need to lay the foundations of their defense, through effective use of fabrication tools that do not generate waste, that are powered by renewable energies, with reasoned use of freshwater, mindful of the non-modification of natural environments and preserving us from urbanization, that is becoming massive on our continent. These two themes of generating adapted digital tools and protecting resources are on the scale of the issues of open technology that we carry here in Argentina.